Valla and Gray continue to learn about each other, despite the tension in the village.
TW: Mentions of sexual assault, homophobia, suicide, and torture
Everything was so unusually silent. The paths between houses were still and tense, as the news of the attack spread through the village. It was as if the entire village had at once remembered everything- all of the pain and trauma- and realized that it was very possible that we might have to relive that horror. And I felt a pain in my stomach when I thought of Valla and the other elves, even the ones who had been disrespectful or haughty. Valla was already scared. The others were getting scared, even if it was just on her behalf.
Storm and I stayed close to each other, our arms constantly brushing against each other as we walked. I hadn’t thought about it consciously much, but I realized just how much of a comfort that closeness was to both of us. How many times had I screamed my throat out in the Dungeon when the guards took Storm out of the cell, even pushing our mother’s attempts to comfort me away, just screamed until I was coughing up blood because I was terrified of him disappearing like so many of our other siblings? And how many times had I stumbled back to the cell, barely held up by the guards who were forcing me to move, and collapsed because of the sedatives they used, and woken up with him holding me around my shoulders as tightly as he could, and with my shoulder wet with his tears? I almost started crying, when I felt one of Storm’s wings around my back and shoulders. I took a deep breath and kept forcing my feet to move forward.
Storm and I didn’t even need to say a word to each other. We knew each other on a level that words didn’t reach. But I remembered feeling the tension in Storm’s voice when Valla had admitted that she enjoyed being around me and I felt a pang of guilt, because I enjoyed being around Valla as well. I didn’t want to lose my friendship with Storm, and I didn’t want Storm to feel like he was going to lose me to her. I couldn’t lose his friendship. I couldn’t.
But I wanted to be closer to Valla. That much I knew. But I didn’t know how to balance the two...
We got enough bread, rice, vegetables, and blackberries to feed everyone, and carried it home to cook. It was carefully measured, more so than normal, and it was clear that Torchlight and Dew were rationing much more carefully than normal. Most of our siblings were inside with Scout. Rune was on the porch, lying on his side, and our mom, Valla, Harold, and Anna were all sitting next to a fire with a few cooking pots. They seemed to be sitting in silence for the most part.
“Welcome back,” our mother said, smiling as if she were barely holding back some pain. Valla and Harold looked up at us, and Harold smiled. Valla crossed her arm over her stomach, and looked at the ground with a weak attempt at a smile.
“Thanks.” Storm and I gave the bags to her, and she opened them. Storm went to go sit next to Rune, and I followed him, glancing at Valla to see if she was watching or paying attention. She didn’t seem to be.
“It seems like they might be trying to ration food a little more. I’m not going to cook all of it.” Our mom smiled, but barely. “Especially with the coastal farms gone. We need to be careful.”
I shifted nervously, and closed my eyes. Storm looked down at Rune.
“Mom… is Rune okay?”
“He’s feeling sick again. And it’s not the dust.”
I sighed. “Damn it, and here we were thinking it had gone away for good…”
“I’m going to try to start making some healing potions, I think,” Valla said softly. “If I can find the things to do so, at least. Preferably… before any battles happen. It might help…”
“That would help a lot,” Mom said. “Especially since your magic seems strong enough to be used in the process.”
“Is that why you don’t already make them, Shadowforth? Is your healing magic not strong enough?” Anna asked. Valla and Harold both glared at her. “What?! I’m not trying to be rude! If it’s not strong enough, that’s a fact!”
“It is why,” Mom said. “I can make basic versions with what I have and I often do, but I’m far better with using herbalism. That being said, each type of healing can help different situations than the other in a lot of cases. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really happy that you’re willing to help us so much, Valla. You’ve already done far more than anyone could have hoped.”
Valla seemed to shrug a little bit. “I hope it’s enough,” she whispered, pushing herself to her feet. “I’m tired. So much has happened. I’m going to go to our room…”
Our mom nodded. “Rest well, then,” she said. Valla stared at the ground as she left, and I suspected that she was trying not to look at Storm and I. I glanced at Storm, and caught his eye. We looked at each other for a second, before he leaned towards me.
“Maybe you should go talk to her.” When I hesitated, he frowned. “She likes you, Gray. And I get the feeling that she’s not feeling great about everything. It would be best for someone she likes to talk to her.”
I blushed. “Are you sure you don’t need me here right now…?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine. I’m going to stay with Rune though…”
I nodded, and stood up. Harold and Anna watched me leave, but didn’t say anything. I wondered if they knew how Valla felt towards me… but I didn’t worry about how they viewed it.
I went up the stairs to the second floor and found Valla sitting on that side of the curtain that they had set up to separate their sleeping area from the rest of the space. I could sense the guardian elves on the other side of the curtain, but they were asleep. Valla had just pulled out her book, and was staring at the cover, without even having her pencil in her hands. She looked up at me when I came in and winced a little bit.
“Hey. Are you okay?”
She sighed deeply, before shaking her head. “I’ll be honest, since I think you already know the answer: No. I’m so terrified. Of everything.”
I knelt in front of her. “Everything?”
“Well… not literally, but that’s what it feels like right now. Step outside the house and there are people who hate me for being born into royalty. Step outside the village and the dust would kill me. Go to the coast to try to go home, and Lassania is now there. And if I somehow made it back to Akalai despite the odds... “ Valla took a shaking breath. “I… Gray, I don’t… I don’t want any of this to be happening. I’m terrified. I’m in so much danger right now, and in a lot of ways, I’d be in even more danger if I hadn’t come here, and knowing that just makes me feel so, so sick and there’s no way out of the situation I’m in…”
She tried to take a deep breath, but a whining sound escaped from her throat, and she clapped her hand over her mouth and glanced towards the curtain, before closing her eyes and shaking her head again. I frowned, and moved so that I was sitting right next to her. She lowered her hand and slowly looked back up at me.
“They… they call me ‘The Dyke Princess’...”
“I mean… I guess you guys don’t really have a clue what that means…” Valla let out a dry laugh. “I like women. You probably know that by now, right?”
“Yes. I do too.”
“Then never visit Akalai if you’re given a chance. They hate it when a woman falls in love with another woman, or when a man falls in love with another man. They call me a dyke because I fell in love with a noblewoman, and we were… we went a little too far in our relationship and some guards caught us, and now she’s married to a man and I don’t even know if I’ll be considered a princess when I return to Akalai… if I return to Akalai…”
I blinked in confusion. Because she had fallen in love with a woman…? “I’m… I don’t understand what problem they saw.”
“Neither do I,” Valla said, shaking her head again. “And honestly, as far as I know, it might just be the nobility and royalty that have problems with it. But either way, I joined the expedition here because I knew that I needed to leave the country. If I stayed, I… don’t know what would have happened to me. And I don’t know what’ll happen if I go back.”
“Just because you like women…?”
“That… makes no sense…” I was trying to think of any reasons why they might feel that way… but the only thing that came to mind was that… perhaps they viewed childbirth and pregnancy as something… desirable? Perhaps… even mandatory, as the scientists in the dungeon had…?
“Me and lots of others don’t like it, but I mean… we’re not the ones in power so there’s not much we can do. We can just… leave or hope it’ll get better. Or try to get into power, and then get exiled and outcast for it. And talk to people, but they never listen. I’d thought that I’d come here to get away from it- and hell, if I died here, at least nobody would be upset by my existence any more. But I don’t… I don’t…”
I put my hand on her hands, trying to comfort her just a little. “Don’t what?”
She looked up at me. “I’d never thought I’d see more than a few people who didn’t hate me for liking women. I… know that…” Valla glanced over to the curtain, as if listening for something. Then, she leaned closer to me, and spoke so quietly that I wasn’t sure she could even hear her own words. “I… know that you guys have had problems with Fayne. But his sister… his sister was... “ Valla started to choke on tears. I kept holding her hand, not sure what to say to comfort her. I hadn’t been the best at comforting people; even when I tried, it usually went wrong. I didn’t want to risk it going wrong with Valla. “Not Safiena, their… their older sister was like me…”
“And, where is she…?” I asked. If it was as bad as Valla said it was, she wouldn’t be safe in Akalai. But Valla’s stare told me that it was too late for her before she even spoke.
“She’s… well… gone. I… don’t remember much of what happened, but it was shortly after Fayne became part of the Royal Guard, and when I heard about the reasons for it, I… couldn’t bring myself to think about it, I… didn’t want to think about it. It could have been me, it… it could have been the woman I was courting, in secret. I just remembered that she was beaten, and… well, worse…”
Valla bitterly nodded. “Y-yeah… her partner was with her, and managed to escape, but was arrested and… well… Fayne’s sister died in the hospital, and the woman she was with… followed her… but… from prison...”
I closed my eyes, and nodded.
“It was only a year or so later that I… I got caught with a woman. And her family wanted me to be executed. My family locked me in my room and only let male servants interact with me. And my father threatened to throw me in the dungeon if I tried to convince people I was in the right. Then a month later, he gave me a letter, telling me it was from her. And it was her handwriting… telling me that she never wanted to see me again, that she had found a man who had ‘healed’ her.”
“Healed her from what?”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It wasn’t her words, that I can guarantee,” Valla said. “And I knew that, but it hurt. It hurt so badly. A week later she was married to a man, and my father was looking for men who I could marry. Fayne was the one who saved me, though… not even close to in the same way. He told me he was leaving to go to this area, to investigate the strange things happening. He was the one who suggested my name to Harold- it was well enough known that I was interested in culture and the like, and having my healing magic here would be a boon. So Fayne recommended me, and then I was on the mission, and we left weeks later after preparation had finished. Nobody asked me about what happened, though, of course, Anna still sometimes gets pissy with me over it, but she just… doesn’t understand, and might never understand. I… don’t know why the others chose to come here, but I know that lots of people in Akalai… aren’t happy with my family. I don’t know. I… don’t want to go back to Akalai. The things here are terrifying, but they’re terrifying because they’re… well, nobody who witnesses them can say they’re not problems. So it feels like it’s okay to be scared of them, because everyone is. But if someone isn’t like me, then they don’t have to be scared of being in love… like I do…”
I nodded, tilting my head and giving her a small smile. “I understand…”
We sat in silence for a long moment, before Valla leaned onto my shoulder. “Thanks for checking on me, Gray…”
“Yeah…” I thought about wrapping my arm around her shoulder, but considering what she had just told me about her homeland, I decided against it. Perhaps it would be best for both of us to move forward slowly. We’d all be happiest that way.